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Where to go

Factors to consider in selecting or designing a route:
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness provides the finest wilderness canoeing opportunities in the United States, if not the world. The Boundary Waters are wonderful in any dose, but with an area of nearly 1.3 million acres, and 1,500 miles of canoe routes, even the most ambitious canoeist can find a lifetime of beauty, relaxation, and challenges. Whether you are merely paddling in for a day from one of the Forest Service group campgrounds, or planning a three week trip along the border and down the Grand Portage, you are in for a wonderful adventure.

Every group traveling to the Boundary Waters has different skills and objectives. Some people like to cover as many miles as possible, while others would just as soon stop at the first campsite they find and set up camp for five days. The objective of this book is to facilitate and enrich the travels of all types of visitors. All routes are described with regard to total miles and total length of portages. I conservatively estimate that a group of canoeists to the Boundary Waters will be able to comfortably travel between 6 and 9 miles during a typical day.

Having said that, the number of miles any individual group can travel is widely variable. Fit groups who want to cover a lot of miles can sometimes cover 20 miles in a good day, while other groups might struggle to do 5. In an effort to assist you in planning your visits, the following five factors are identified as the biggest modifiers of trip difficulty, travel times, and travel distances: portages, gear, weather, ability, and attitude. Keep these considerations in mind as you review routes or design your own.

Factor No. 1: Portages
The biggest variable in the distance visitors can cover in one day is the number and length of portages. For the unacquainted, a portage is the traditional Voyageur term for an overland trail connecting two bodies of water. Portages are still measured in terms of "rods", one rod corresponding to 16.5 feet or 5 meters. There are 320 rods per mile. To convert portages into miles, multiply the number of rods by .0031. To convert portages to kilometers, multiply the number of rods by .005

A typical canoe party will travel about two miles an hour on smooth water with no head wind. Once you factor in the unloading, carrying, and reloading of gear, that same party is likely to travel just a half-mile an hour on portages (taking a half hour to cover a 160 rod portage).

The most important thing to realize about portages is that they are not created equal. Length, trail conditions, changes in elevation, and landing characteristics all make a big difference in portage difficulty. Some long portages are easy, some short portages are nearly impassible. In order to assist trip planners, Exploring the Boundary Waters by Daniel Pauly ranks most portages on a portage scale of 1 to 10. The most difficult, long portages are given a high difficulty rating number (L10), while the easiest, shortest portages are given a low difficulty rating number (L1). Some portages do not have such rankings, typically because they are of average difficulty for their length.

In addition to length and difficulty of a portage, the number of portages is a major factor in route difficulty. Three short portages is typically far more work and will take much more time than one long portage of the same total length. The increased difficulty arises because of the energy and time required to land, unload and reload your canoe. For this reason, this guide has been prepared assuming that a group can comfortably cover from 4 to 7 average 50 rod portages in a given day, and that all but the easiest portages require a minimum of 15 minutes to completely cross.

Factor Number 2: Amount of Gear
The amount of gear you bring with you is the second critical factor determining how much distance you can cover on a Boundary Waters trip. The biggest way to increase the miles you can explore is to travel light enough to do all of your portages in a single trip. If the people in each canoe in your party can carry all of their gear and their canoe across a portage in one trip, you will cut your portage distances by two thirds because you only have to cover each portage once from start to finish, rather than three times as you go from start to finish, back to start, and then over to the finish again.

The key to traveling light is traveling smart. If you want to be mobile, bring only what you need to be safe and reasonably comfortable: a good lightweight tent, compact sleeping bags, mostly dry foods, a small stove, etc. A complete list of recommended gear is provided in this guide and downloadable at www.BoundaryWatersGuide.com. Pack like you are going backpacking rather than car camping. If you are bringing a stove, which you should, make it a backpacking model not the two-burner suitcase style. If you want a chair, sit on a log or bring a lightweight collapsible chair that utilizes your sleeping pad. If you travel in this manner the portages will be much, much easier. There is nothing wrong with bringing along a larger stove, chair, roll-up table, etc. But just remember that every ounce of gear in your canoe has to go down every portage. That 15 pound cot can quickly transform from your pride and joy to the bane of your existence.

Factor Number 3: Weather
Another important factor in determining travel is the weather, in particular strong headwinds and rain. The larger lakes in the Boundary Waters are mostly west-east oriented, which makes them perfectly situated to develop large rolling waves on days when the wind is howling out of the west. Such popular large lakes as Brule, Gunflint, Pine, and Saganaga can become all but impassable to canoe traffic in the afternoon (or any other windy period). You should keep this in mind and allow yourself adequate time to travel large lakes. On most days the wind does not really pick up until after noon. Cool morning hours before the sun has significantly heated the atmosphere are prime travel times on the big lakes of the Boundary Waters.

The other weather condition that can wreak havoc on trip planning is rain. Naturally it can rain any time on a trip to the Boundary Waters. If you are prepared, it really shouldn't have any impact on your travels. If you are not prepared, you are likely to lose an entire day of travel as you sort through wet pancake boxes and try to dry out your clothes, or puzzle over how synthetic sleeping bags can mildew. You have a lot of control over how you handle rain in the Boundary Waters. Come prepared and rain can be another way of experiencing the rich and varied beauty of the north woods.

Many experienced campers make the best of rain and use it as their time to travel. Canoeing to your next destination during rain maximizes the chance you will be able to enjoy drier weather in camp when it returns. If you are well prepared rain won't slow you down, and is a lot better than cowering under a tarp back at camp. Of course, never travel during thunderstorms or when thunderstorms even threaten. Any time you can hear thunder or see lightning you must immediately leave the lake, even if it appears to be miles away or is confined to the upper atmosphere. Lightning strikes have killed BWCAW visitors in the past, so use utmost caution.

Factor Number 4: Ability and Attitude
The final travel factors that I have seen impact significantly impact canoeists are their ability and attitude. The Boundary Waters continues to draw young and old of every experience level and physical condition. With good communication, planning, and teamwork, anyone can enjoy a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters. However, the type of trip you take and the distance you cover is still closely related to your experience level, strength, and stamina. If your group includes inexperienced campers, consider making modest travel plans, such as spending five or six days to cover a route normally estimated to take 3 or 4 days. Also, look for routes that are easily modified to make them longer or shorter depending upon how your trip is going. The labyrinth of lakes and portages that make up the Boundary Waters allow you to plan a couple of possible routes that start and end at the same location.

Over the years I've talked to numerous people whose first trip into the BWCAW was with seasoned travelers who planned an aggressive route, not taking into account how much of a mental and physical challenge it would be for the first time visitors. The first-timers are often not prepared for the hard struggle, and I think much less likely to again attempt wilderness travel. Introduce people to the BWCAW with a moderate trip so they come back hungry to return.

Perhaps even more important than ability is attitude. The Boundary Waters is rough, wild country. You are not staying at the Holiday Inn: the mosquitoes can be overwhelming, the wind biting cold, and the ground rock hard. Come ready for a challenge, and you will leave satisfied.

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©2005 Exploring the Boundary Waters and Daniel Pauly. All rights reserved.